Thursday, March 21, 2013

It was mere 'coffeeshop' talk, says Sibu lawyer

by Pearl Lee & Haresh Deol, The Malay Mail

A lawyer in the centre of an explosive video expose that implicates the family of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud in alleged shady land deals has claimed he was trapped by an international activist organisation.

Huang Lung Ong told The Malay Mail by phone from Sibu yesterday: "I was trapped. I was consulted on legal matters regarding land,” he said.

“Why should I speak about the chief minister?” A partner of law firm Huang & Co fumed.

“I may have uttered some words out of frustration as he (the 'foreign investor') kept on asking me many questions. I was pressured,” he said.

Huang claimed that what he had said to the "foreign investor", who he referred to as Andy Stewart, was mere “coffeeshop” talk.

Posed as investor

The lawyer said he was unaware that he was being filmed and that he has not seen the video which was filmed last May.

Huang was one of two lawyers interviewed by an undercover Global Witness (GW) investigator in what the London-based NGO claimed was an “investigation revealing corruption and illegality” in Sarawak.

GW activists investigate and campaign against environmental and human rights abuses.

The investigator was sent to Sarawak last year to pose as a "foreign investor" looking to buy land to set up oil palm plantations. Reports allege the investor was offered four land leases during the covert investigation.
GW captured on video discussions with Taib’s cousins and several other intermediaries to acquire thousands of hectares of forest land in the state.

The almost 17-minute video Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State was posted on YouTube on Monday.

Uncle from wife's side

In the video, Huang is seen speaking casually to a Global Witness investigator in a hotel room.

At one stage, Huang said that the land deal they were negotiating involved his “uncle from his wife’s side” and implied Taib was involved.

Relating his side of the story, Huang said he was informed of a potential investor by one Jacky Ling, a Sibu-based broker and a friend.

“Jacky has helped my firm in the past as I did sale and purchase agreements for several small deals including the sale of semi-detached and terrace houses.

“He told me there was a big land deal coming up and the buyer wanted to consult on some legal matters.

“Jacky introduced me to Stewart in May last year about 4pm in my office. Stewart said he was from England and I briefed him about Malaysian land law matters.

“The Englishman passed me a name card and it was stated Andy Stewart. I didn’t bother looking at other details.”

'This is unfair to me'

Stewart had apparently invited Huang for a drink several days later at a hotel where the discussion was recorded.

“He began by saying how much he loved Sarawak and its people, but towards the end he started asking me questions about the land and the chief minister.

“How can I answer all those questions? I’m just a lawyer protecting the broker’s interest.”

Asked if the landowner was in fact his "uncle", Huang said; “He is a distant relative. I respect everyone elder than me by calling them uncle or aunty.”

When suggested that as a lawyer he would be used to grilling witnesses in court, and he would know if he was being pressured to answer questions, Huang kept mum.

He said: “People don’t understand and this is unfair to me. This has certainly tarnished my reputation.

“We cannot be bullied by NGOs who want to thrash our country. I’m a very frank man and I’ve got a family to take care.

“I will not rule out the possibility of lodging a report with the authorities and sue Global Witness if I have the means,” Huang said.

Another lawyer

The other lawyer is Alvin Chong who told the undercover investigators how to dodge taxes and to acquire the 51 per cent of shareholdings that by law should be held by Malaysian citizens.

The subtitles in the video in one of Chong’s remarks read: “...You do it (not holding shares in trust) in Singapore, then it wouldn’t surface and the nominee’s not going to keep a shred of paper...”

Chong who has reportedly represented the Sarawak government was not available for comment but the end of the GW video carries a statement from his law firm, Alvin Chong and Partners:

“We categorically deny our Mr Chong acted as legal spokesperson for the alleged party.

“We deny any discussions to allegedly evade tax and if there were any purported discussions these were strictly hypothetical.”

~ The Malay Mail

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